For many of us, Johnny Foreigner has become a trusted mate, being one of the most dependable and approachable indie bands of the last decade. Whilst there’s been plenty of good things to talk about when it comes to the band, they’ve had their fair share of down times. From troubles with their former record label to constant unhappiness with their home city, they’ve shown a remarkable amount of resiliency.
The Birmingham-based trio released their third album late last year, a stellar work entitled Johnny Foreigner vs Everything on Alocpop! Records. On the heels of the band’s finest work to date, we caught up with lead singer Alexei Berrow over e-mail in what turned out to be a long chat about Birmingham, their jump to a new label, and quite a bit more. The second part of the interview will be posted tomorrow.
1. With the release of Johnny Foreigner vs Everything last year, it’s safe to say that JoFo is now an experienced, veteran band. Do you look at it this way? What are some of the things that keep you guys going as a unit?
Yeah sort of. It’s kinda like progressing through school; you don’t so much notice yourself being older as much as everyone around you being younger. But 6 years, 3 albums, we’ve outlasted most of our favourite bands already and we’re in good spirits, like that old uncle in everyone’s family who smokes 20 a day but still wont die. I guess what keeps us going is the same stuff that kept us going before anyone knew who we were; enjoying making music and playing shows is an intrinsic part of all of us. Obviously the travelling the world and playing sold out shows when you get there to people who relate to you and sing with you is a pretty incredible incentive. Also, we’d been in bands before this and already been through our hardcore ego/drug phases. We’ve lived in each others pockets for most of our adult lives and I think we’ve subconsciously learnt how to deal with the kind of petty shit you squabble over in that situation.
2. Tell us about Birmingham and how the sights and sounds of the city has influenced your work. What are some pros/cons of Brum?
The pros are, it’s in the middle of the country so we get to sleep in our own beds a lot more than most touring bands, and, um, it has oxygen and internet. When we started out we badmouthed our city all the time, and just as it got to the point where we were thinking familiarity breeds contempt, we started playing in other similar sized cities and realised we were right all along; most of the bands suck, the record store communities have all but vanished and our accents are embarrassing.
I’d like to blame our dumb council, a succession of greedy con men who only wanted to make themselves rich and didn’t care what they left behind. Manchester and Liverpool celebrate and bank off their artistic/musical scene. They take pride in community, invest and support and reap the rewards later when their bands go supernova. Birmingham sunk its money into a shopping mall instead. “Europe’s largest,” they used to legally be allowed to boast.
As a result, they can’t afford to do anything that doesn’t cater to the affluent white middle class demographic that they need to keep buying from Selfridges. So venues live under constant threat of closure from noise complaints from newly converted warehouse apartments, the colleges are a joke, and any kind of subsidisation is masked and hidden away to be wheeled out for Artsfest. Which is what we have to compete with The Great Escape, or In The City, or Sound City, or Camden Crawl.
Unfortunately, Birmingham is also obsessed with being “cultural”. (to the extent that one year they tried to ban Christmas.) Artsfest started out as a way to show off to cities how many black friends we all had. Post Bullring though, the balance has shifted to allow for a big stage and 5 hours worth of X-Factor losers or Kerrang brand local alternate rock talent (apart from that one time it was us.) Personally I’d prefer to watch the interpretive Bhangra wheelchair dance revue, but I guess that’s progress.
Nice parks, mind.
3. You’ve found yourselves on the brilliant Alcopop for this newest release. Describe your relationship with the label and the support they’ve given you over the years.
We’ve been vague friends since we started out, and Jack’s always had similar enough tastes to ours to ensure he was always putting out bands we loved. Leaving our last label was like a bitter divorce, we convinced ourselves we didn’t want to get involved with anyone else. We lasted about a year, and during that time we met Stagecoach and got jealous when they talked of being on Alcopop, so we got talking to Jack, and they put out the You Thought You Saw… EP as a kind of tester. We were super impressed with the record-servicing things that he did as well as how much freedom we got. In a way it still feels like we’re DIY cos we still decide what we do and when and how, whilst Jack gets on with the “selling the product” part.
We’ve always thought, that’s how a label should run — we do the art, they do the commerce, and like, that’s it. In practice, this never works out. Most labels are so ruined by internets that just making an income from the music they get given isn’t enough; hence 360 deals and stupid kids signing away their merch rights and every band in the history of record labels ever having arguments with their paymasters about how to proceed from whatever shaky plateau they’d landed on. With Jack we have a classic, fair Tony Wilson agreement. He’s the same age as us, knows what we’ve been through and how we like to work, and is constantly thinking of new and fun things to get people interested in what he does in much the same way we are. Alcopop 4eva.
4. We’ve read at times over the years of various frustrations the band has had with the music business. Tell us about some of them. Where do you feel things stand now, in the winter of 2012?
Mostly everything stems from us being naive, mostly over money and contracts. 2009 was kinda awful — basically proved to us that record contracts aren’t worth anything unless you have the financial clout to sue people if they break them, which is a catch-22, cos, if you can afford lawyers, you aren’t going to worry about a couple of grand in tourbus rental. So we got our advance for the second record cut, couldn’t get tour support, and pretty much entered a cycle of debty doom. I wouldn’t bitch at anyone about it, I doubt it’s any more or less than most indie bands signed to corporate labels in the new scary internet age. By the end of 2010, we were pretty stable and had a publishing agreement that gave us money to tour the US, and we were literally weeks away from flying when we realised they were effectively banking us. So we held a big online garage sale, and that got us over there and put a weeks worth of credit into a van, and we borrowed like tramps for the rest and came back in even more debt.
Would do it all again tomorrow to be honest, it was an awesome tour.
It’s been weird, cos needing to find money and forcing ourselves to run as cheaply as possible has taught us that being our band can be reasonably profitable; we’ve just never got to see any of it. We’ve got fairly good at raising cash when we need to, in a way that doesn’t involve us compromising our punka philosophy or ripping people off. And come the middle of this year, assuming no one dies, we’ll be able to start keeping some of that money, and having more outrageous holidays disguised as tours. So yeah, everything’s coming up Millhouse.